A Baltimore woman and her 10-year-old son are facing a Monday morning eviction after a city judge denied a request Thursday to delay the case, which likely stems from unpaid water bills in 2018.
An attorney representing the family said a few missed water payments led to the house going through tax sale foreclosure in May 2018, a few months after the East Baltimore resident noticed a dramatic change in what she owed. She didn’t pay off the debt in time to prevent its inclusion on the annual tax sale list, which allows buyers to purchase the liens on properties. Homes with purchased liens can then be foreclosed upon if the homeowner fails to pay back the lien holder with fees and interest.
East Baltimore resident Deana Woodward, 53, has lived in her home on the 2900 block of Kirk Avenue for five decades, inheriting the property from her father in 2005. Since then, she said she paid off the outstanding mortgage and paid her property taxes and water bills. If she missed payments, she worked hard to get back on track, she said.
But a few years ago, Woodward said her water bill skyrocketed from its usual average of about $100 a month to several hundred dollars a month. Woodward disputed the water bill with the city but never got an answer for the rising charges — she believes she may have been charged for a water main leak — and while she was disputing the charges, she said she stopped paying water bills.
By the time a third-party investor purchased the lien, it amounted to about $3,000, including other fees.
When Woodward got notice her home was on the tax sale list, the paperwork mentioned missing property taxes and not the water bill. She said it wasn’t until Thursday that she learned the water bills were why her home was sold in the tax sale.
“They’ve given me until Monday to move. I have nowhere to go,” Woodward said outside the family home Thursday.
Standing with her was her youngest child, Liam, who said he was home Thursday when sheriff’s deputies came to the house. He’ll likely have to say goodbye to his collection of reptiles and other pets Monday as he and his mother search for new housing. He starts a new school year soon and had plans to start taking classes with the Baltimore School for the Arts’ after-school program for young musicians.
In a statement, representatives from Mayor Brandon Scott’s office said he convened a work group to study reforms to the tax sale process to prevent more city residents from losing their homes. They said he has advocated for more protective measures at the state level and will continue that advocacy during the 2024 legislative session. The judicial system, they added, has the final say in this instance.
They did not comment, however, on if there was a overbilling problem or water main leak.
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos said she investigated the case and attempted to reverse the tax sale but was unsuccessful. She said even though it may have been included on the list legally at that time, she questions whether the family had adequate notice of their options. Her investigation is ongoing, she said.
“Families should not lose their homes this way. It’s horrific,” she said. “I am determined to continue our tax sale reform efforts to ensure this does not happen to anyone.”
Problems with city water billing have plagued residents for years, with many homeowners reporting instances of overbilling; water leaks in vacant properties; and receipts going to spam folders. Late last year, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore paid a water bill for more than $21,000 that he said he found out about through news reports.
Meanwhile, a Baltimore Banner investigation of the tax sale process found a range of problems with the process, including a disproportionate concentration of home seizures in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The Banner also found that Baltimore residents who lose homes after tax sales often don’t see excess funds they’re owed from auction; Woodward, for example, said she is owed more than $7,000 she hasn’t received yet.
The irregularities with tax sales and water billing helped push state lawmakers to pass a bill in 2018 prohibiting homes to go through the annual tax sale process solely due to unpaid water bills. Signed by Gov. Larry Hogan, it went into effect Oct. 1, 2018, slightly too late to help Woodward and her son. City lawmakers and housing advocates also have pushed to enact laws excluding owner-occupied homes from going through tax sale at all.
John Kern, project manager at the Baltimore-based Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund, which provides assistance to people facing tax sale, said the case is a reminder that even well-intentioned laws have gaps. This could be among the last of the foreclosures that started before the water bill law went into effect, he added. And the case was likely drawn out longer than it should have due to judicial system delays during the coronavirus pandemic, adding another layer of confusion.
And Nneka N’namdi, founder of the community group Fight Blight Bmore, said citizens of Baltimore can’t be expected to understand the tax sale process if elected officials have difficulty with it, too.
A New York-based investment firm bought the lien on the home for more than $10,000, according to a copy of the May 2018 tax sale certificate. It was eligible to be redeemed through November of that year. When that didn’t happen, the foreclosure process began and slugged through the court system beginning in 2019. Online property records show that a limited liability company — which is currently filing for Woodward’s eviction — purchased the home this past April for just under $50,000.